Rewind to the beginning of the NBA offseason and you wouldn’t expect the Phoenix Suns, the worst team in the league last season, to make much of a commotion. But the Suns ended up being one of the most active teams of the summer. They drafted Deandre Ayton no. 1 overall and traded Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick for Mikal Bridges. They signed Trevor Ariza away from the Rockets for $15 million over one year. They gave Devin Booker a five-year, $158 million max extension (hold that thought), and most recently, they traded away Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss to the Rockets for De’Anthony Melton and Ryan Anderson.
Knight’s departure means that T.J. Warren is the only remaining player from the Suns’ 2014-15 roster, which wasn’t that long ago. Phoenix has overhauled its team and built around Booker as its leading man.
The Suns have indeed turned the offense over to Booker, but in their flurry of moves, they forgot to build in a contingency plan. Phoenix’s depth chart is thin at point guard after Booker, and he’s not even really a point guard. Now they’ll be forced to face the pitfalls of such an approach: The Suns announced that Booker underwent surgery Monday on the joint of his pinkie finger on his right (shooting) hand. Recovery time is about six weeks, per the Suns, which would keep him out of Phoenix’s entire preseason and the first two games of the 2018–19 regular season.
98.7 FM Arizona reported Sunday that Booker jammed his hand in practice in March and that the injury lingered through the end of last season. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski followed up by reporting that Booker’s right hand had “swelled up recently.”
This all seems … sudden. Nothing was said about the injury when Booker signed his max extension in July. And while reports indicate that the swelling occurred only recently, the hand looks good here in this video, which was posted in late July:
It’s hard to overstate how important Booker is to the present and future of the Suns. Though he was lauded more for his shooting when he entered the league, and has hardly been a pass-first guy since (4.7 assists per game last season), the Suns are planning to use Booker as their own James Harden—as a ballhandling, offense-starting, primary-scoring option. While they haven’t said so outright, the Suns are betting big—$158 million big—on Booker fitting this type of role, and betting on him big—$158 million big—to eventually produce similar results to the Houston star. And though Booker spent 83 percent of his minutes last season as the 2-guard, according to Basketball-Reference, the Suns have been quietly preparing him for such a role: Booker’s usage rate has increased each of his three seasons in the league since he was drafted in 2015. His 30.9 usage rate last season was the sixth-highest in the league among players who appeared in at least 50 games (he played in 54, his lowest total yet), according to NBA.com/Stats. The 21-year-old was the youngest of that group.
The Suns think Booker can become a star, and there’s plenty of data that would support that conclusion. For instance, Booker averaged nearly 25 points a game and shot over 38 percent from 3 last season—just his third in the league. But such lofty expectations come with a pressure to perform, and stay on the court.
With Ayton, Bridges, promising defenders in Josh Jackson and Melton, and a few other young pieces like rookie French guard Elie Okobo (who was the favorite to start at guard next to Booker, and may be asked to handle the ball more should Booker miss time), the Suns have built a foundation full of hope and talent. But much like Harden and the Rockets, as Booker goes, so will the franchise. They made sure it would be this way.
This piece was updated at 6:24 p.m. ET on Monday with additional information about Booker’s injury.